How ‘Christmas Vacation’ explains Congress’ coronavirus relief conundrum

“Nobody’s leaving. Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned, family Christmas. No. No. We’re all in this together.” – Chevy Chase in “Christmas Vacation.”

If a public health crisis the likes of which the United States has potentially never seen doesn’t force Congress to pass a COVID-19 relief bill …

If a reeling economy and millions set to lose additional unemployment assistance the day after Christmas doesn’t compel Congress to agree to a coronavirus package …

In another time, in another place, congressional leaders would simply resort to a trusty old political maneuver to force lawmakers to vote for whatever final, intractable bill remained just before the holidays – and usually prevail.

Congressional leaders would not so subtly suggest to rank-and-file members they’d simply have to remain in Washington until there was an agreement on the such-and-such bill. And, if there wasn’t a deal, they’d cancel Christmas. Lawmakers would stay in session through the holidays. No rushing back to trim the tree or hit the mall. No John Candy/Steve Martin machinations, plying all modes of transportation, to find a way home just before the special day. No. Members would find themselves marooned at the Capitol, racing to finish things up. Or, if they failed to get home in time, they would face the ire of the most powerful people in the country: congressional spouses.

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Congressional families put up with a lot. A lawmaker relative is never around, always in Washington. Even when they are back “home,” they are someplace else: another part of the district, another part of the state. They have to fundraise. They have to fundraise for their colleagues. They travel overseas on official business over congressional recesses.

So, the holidays are sacrosanct. And, threatening to wipe out Christmas often worked as leverage to force agreement.

This is the congressional version of the “Stockholm Syndrome.” Tether lawmakers to Washington, through interminable meetings close to the holidays. Wear them down. And eventually, they’ll start to agree with their captors. The members will vote for practically anything if that means they are liberated from the Capitol and get to go home to celebrate the holidays with family.

The 2020 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree is lit after a ceremony on the West Front of Capitol Hill in Washington, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., Dec. 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The 2020 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree is lit after a ceremony on the West Front of Capitol Hill in Washington, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., Dec. 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

But does the threat of canceling Christmas really work this time around, in the middle of a pandemic? Especially if the House has remote voting? Most lawmakers can vote from the comfort of their living room, warmed by a yule log.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., hoped a few weeks ago Congress would wrap up by Dec. 11. Then members could go home, quarantine with their families, then begin a re-quarantine to comply with Washington, D.C.’s, local health rules so they could start the new Congress on Jan. 3.

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Well, that wish vanished like the Grinch swiping gifts from Whoville. Congress had to approve a stopgap bill to avoid a government shutdown last week. Another government shutdown looms this Friday night. And coronavirus talks were in a shambles late last week. They’re trying to get a deal on government funding and coronavirus relief this week. But the hour is getting late.

Many House members returned home last week after Hoyer indicated the services of members probably wouldn’t be needed until and if there was a coronavirus package.

So, if there’s no pressure, and Christmas is all screwed up because of the pandemic anyway, no one really feels the need to step on the accelerator.

Coronavirus negotiations have gone on, in one form or another, since July. Many of the same issues remain. Travel and vacations aren’t what they once were. And, if you can’t really go shopping, and spend time with friends and family the way you usually would during the pandemic, you may as well work in Washington over Christmas.

We have no idea if a coronavirus aid measure will come together. But it’s looking increasingly likely that Congress will have to meet the week of Christmas, as lawmakers struggle to work something out. If not the week between Christmas and New Year’s.

That would be so 2020.

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Here’s the other thing about any sort of a coronavirus bill: Maybe, just maybe, there’s no deal to be had. Sure, an economic calamity awaits as we drift deeper into winter. But the sides have been at it for months. They haven’t budged much. This is as stubborn a legislative problem that has existed on Capitol Hill on a so-called “must pass” measure in years.

Many Senate Republicans dismiss the bipartisan proposal assembled by a coalition of senators. If they could get a deal, they likely would have gotten it a long time ago. Sometimes, there are some bills that seem like they should have resolution. But the problem is too complicated to unwind. One wonders if this may be one of those circumstances.

That’s why flexing some “Stockholm Syndrome” muscle may not mean as much this holiday season.

“We can’t leave without doing a COVID bill,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

“We cannot leave here without having a piece of legislation,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

“There’s no way, no way, that we’re going to leave Washington without taking care of the emergency needs of our people,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on Fox.

That’s right. Lawmakers may just stick around. And stick around. And stick around, through the holidays until something’s ready on the coronavirus assistance front. Christmas, New Year’s – the 116th Congress may drift into the 117th Congress come January.

And even so, it may be better health-wise if lawmakers aren’t flying back and forth from their districts and states in the middle of the pandemic. It may be healthier for everyone to just remain in one place – even if that flies in the face of the goal Steny Hoyer set a few weeks ago.

However, if they do get a deal, it will come together with lightning speed. Things on Capitol Hill move faster than Donder and Blitzen when leaders forge an agreement on the outstanding issue du jour at Christmas. And when the sides do reach an accord, they’ll load this legislation up with more goodies than Santa’s sleigh.

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The holidays on the Hill are rarely bereft of drama. You never quite know if the political equivalent of Heat Miser, the Winter Warlock or the Burgermeister Meisterburger is going to threaten Christmas at the Capitol. This year is no exception.

“I don’t know what to say,” declared Beverly D’Angelo as Ellen Griswold in Christmas Vacation. “But it’s Christmas, and we’re all in misery.”

Chad Pergram currently serves as a congressional correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in September 2007 and is based out of Washington, D.C.